Game 11: Oakland (5-5) at Tennessee (7-0)
Tuesday, December 14, 2010 | 7:00pm
TV: ESPNU | Radio: WDFM-AM (1130)
Heading into the season, folks might not have figured Tennessee would be Oakland's toughest opponent. That would have gone to Purdue with Robbie Hummel back or perhaps Michigan State if it were at full strength and without some consistency issues in its frontcourt. There's also that little bit about some of the off-court issues impacting the Tennessee program leading up to the start of the season. Yet here we are, about a month removed from opening night, and a lot has changed. Purdue lost its biggest star, and Oakland was able to compete with them for about thirty minutes. Michigan State has had a few let downs, and Oakland came out with its A-game in a one-point lost to the foes from East Lansing. And despite increased scrutiny on the Tennessee program's happenings off the court, the Volunteers have themselves a perfect start, including a romp of top-ranked Pittsburgh over the weekend. While Oakland has yet to shy away from coming out strong against tough teams, there is no doubt that this Tennessee squad, right now, might be the toughest test yet.
Home Court Advantage, Defined
Just as the New Year arrived last season, a few Tennessee basketball players, including star Tyler Smith, were suspended (Smith was eventually booted) after being arrested on gun and drug possession charges. The team had just two losses up to that point and had just beaten Memphis on the road. Without Brian Williams, Cameron Tatum, or Melvin Goins (all starters this year) and Smith, a depleted Volunteers squad promptly went out and took down number one ranked Kansas on January 10. It might have been the biggest non-conference win the program had at Thompson-Boling Arena under Bruce Pearl, but perhaps that shouldn't surprise anyone. If we did our math right, in Pearl's six years in Knoxville, his team has a 39-2 record in non-conference games played at home. 39 and 2. Simply put, this team under Pearl has been the definition of home court advantage. Even with their backs up against the wall, minus key players and against the toughest opponent, this team still found a way to preserve home court. Oakland fans can take solace in knowing that this year's OU hoops squad hasn't backed down from any opponents even in hostile environments, but to win at Thompson-Boling is just short of impossible. The Golden Grizzlies will need to have that swagger and confidence they had on Saturday to come close.
Key Personnel Match-Up
Keith Benson vs. Brian Williams
Brian Williams has steadily seen his production increase in each of his four years as a Volunteer. The senior center isn't quite a double-double machine, but he does give Tennessee a sizeable post presence capable of guarding opposing big men. His mate in the frontcourt is Tobias Harris, a super freshman with great athletic ability who has been a perfect fit in the Tennessee system, but as Williams is more of a low post guy, it appears that he'll start opposite Oakland's Keith Benson in this one. Benson has gone up against an array of different types of big men this season, but Williams might be the bulkiest yet. It'll be interesting to see if Bruce Pearl opts to double-team Benson like Bruce Weber did or if he'll take his chances by seeing how Williams does in one-on-one situations. Either way, it's yet another opportunity for Benson to go up against an imposing frontcourt, and they'll surely be aware of what he is capable of doing by now.
Tennessee Player To Watch: Scotty Hopson
Here's an interesting fact: among the top 10 recruits in the class of 2008, only Scotty Hopson is still playing college basketball (hat-tip to CBSsports.com). All of the others have gone on to play in the NBA, while Hopson has stuck in Knoxville, seemingly waiting for his breakout chance to come. In 2010-11, he has been a large part of why Tennessee has been unbeatable. He's had a very consistent season, averaging 18 points per game on just shy of 50% shooting from the field (including a cool 40% from deep) while reigniting talk of his NBA potential. Hopson is 6'7" and listed as a guard, which poses match-up problems for Oakland. If you're looking for him during the game, just look out for the dude with the high-top fade. You can't miss it.
Oakland Player To Watch: Reggie Hamilton
After going for at least fifteen points in each of his last seven games, Hamilton had a quiet game offensively against Michigan State. A couple of late three-pointers got him into double figures, but other than that it was Larry Wright who provided much of the scoring from OU's backcourt. Hamilton, as we have all learned, is a confident player and will no doubt be looking to give Oakland a major boost against against Tennessee. He'll likely play opposite Melvin Goins, another 5'11" guard who is strong, quick, and athletic so Hamilton will continue to get no breaks in terms of the talent level of those guarding him.
Oakland and Tennessee have never met on the court, though Oakland coach Greg Kampe and Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl have coached against one another in the past. During the early-to-mid 1990s, Pearl was coaching at Southern Indiana, a program which he developed into a Division II power. The NCAA's Division II results database only goes back to 1997-98, when Oakland and Greg Kampe traveled to Southern Indiana, losing to the Pearl-coached team 92-68. Presumably the two programs faced off in earlier years as well with these coaches at the helm. It's worth noting that next season, Pearl will bring his Volunteers to Rochester for a game at the O'Rena.
We got in touch with the great Tennessee blog Rocky Top Talk, part of the SBNation.com network, to talk a bit about the Volunteers. Will, who serves as one of the site's editors, was kind enough to respond:
|Tennessee looked dominating against Pittsburgh on both ends of the floor. How do fans feel about how the season is coming together, and what are expectations like heading into this last stretch of non-conference games? Anything you'd still like to see from this team that maybe hasn't shown yet or that could use more consistency?|
RTT: We knew the Vols would be deep and talented, but we had no idea they would be this good this fast. The things the Vols have been best at - halfcourt defense, ball movement, late-game free throw shooting - are things you expect to see develop over the course of the year. Instead, Tennessee used them to beat two Top 10 Big East teams away from Knoxville before Christmas. With the win at Pitt, the expectation now becomes that this team should win every night - that won't happen, of course, but I think now everyone in the program knows this team is good right now instead of hoping we would be this good by March. The one thing the Vols could use more of is points from their big men - Tobias Harris plays the four, but gets a lot of his points from a point forward role. Center Brian Williams averages only six points per game, that's much lower than we thought it would be, and his backup John Fields is primarily a shot blocker. Clearly it hasn't hurt the Vols yet, but it would be nice to see Williams have a big offensive game just to know it's there.
The word is out about Scotty Hopson. What do you attribute his stellar season to thus far? What makes him scary to guard, and what makes him difficult to go up against?
RTT: Hopson has always had the ability to get through traffic and produce at the rim, he's just been very tentative up until this season. Bruce Pearl attributes it to playing with guys like Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism his first two years, where Scotty would defer to them in the offense instead of creating shots for himself all the time. Now that he's a junior and is one of the leaders on the team, he's not worried about deferring to anyone else. The jump shots that were there last year are still going in for him, but now he's playing with confidence and authority - the two dunks he had at Pitt where he attacked the basket were plays he's never made against good teams before. He can beat teams from all over the floor.
Tobias Harris and Brian Williams seem like known commodities in the Tennessee frontcourt at this point. What are their strengths and weaknesses? And what kind of depth does the team have in the frontcourt?
RTT: Tobias can also beat teams from all over the floor, which is a big part of what makes the Vols so dangerous when he and Hopson are on the floor together. Tobias is a very smooth player - he makes everything look easy, almost like he's playing in slow-motion. He's not one for the spectacular - he's the sort of guy that doesn't make many huge plays, but you look up at the end of the night and he's got 15 points and 6 rebounds (his current average). He's also very disciplined, especially for a true freshman - he's shooting 70% from the three point line because he's been patient enough to only take one or two of them per game.
Brian Williams is the only fourth-year senior on this team, and it shows with his game - not only has he been very strong on the boards this year, he's become an excellent passer and has allowed Tennessee to do some inside-out stuff. John Fields averages 1.9 blocks per game and has already made SportsCenter several times this year with some very impressive rejections. There's an unknown factor with Marquette transfer Jeronne Maymon, who was supposed to play his first game against Pitt but didn't get cleared after final exams in time - you should see him backing up Tobias Harris on Tuesday night, and we're all eager to see what he's got. And Steven Pearl is the typical coach's son - doesn't score much, but does all the little things, is incredibly tough, and makes everyone else on the floor better.
The Volunteers have been nearly unbeatable at home under Bruce Pearl. What is it about the program that makes it impossible for teams to win in Knoxville?
RTT: Tennessee was always a place with great fans that were used to winning in football and women's basketball, and I think we always knew that if we ever got consistently good in basketball, the atmosphere at Thompson-Boling Arena would follow. It's a big building, for one - we seat over 21,000, though with students leaving for Christmas it won't be quite as strong against Oakland. And Pearl's teams in the past have really thrived off emotion - we've only lost eight home games in Pearl's six years, and five of those were in 2008-09, which included an overtime loss against Gonzaga and a loss to Alabama on a halfcourt buzzer beater. I don't think Pearl will allow any sort of complacency - I think the Vols will be ready to go against Oakland. The only non-conference teams to win in Knoxville during Pearl's tenure are Gonzaga and Memphis, so Oakland would be breaking some new ground were they to pull off an upset.
Thanks to Will of Rocky Top Talk for taking the time to answer our questions as thoroughly as he did. Be sure to check out their website for a Volunteer perspective heading into the game.
The Extra Pass
Tennessee player Renaldo Woolridge might only be a role player for the Volunteers, but he's clearly number one on the team when it comes to rhyming ability. The junior forward has made quite a following through YouTube where he posts videos of his rap songs recorded under his stage name of "Swiperboy." His best track is "Tip Off (College Hoops Time)," a song which successfully gives a shoutout to every single conference in Division I basketball. Major props to Swiperboy for thinking of the little guys.
If you dig what you hear, you can check out some of his other tunes here.
As always, if you'd like to give your thoughts on the Oakland-Tennessee game, you can head over to the Golden Grizzly Hoops forum to post with other fans before, during, and after the game: Game Thread.